Oregon oil train explosion fuels growing opposition movement

This web exclusive appeared online at hcn.org on June 8, 2016.

Tucked against the steep forests and cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge on Oregon’s northern border, the town of Mosier is a modest collection of wooden homes and narrow streets that climb through oaks and droop-topped Douglas fir. From Mosier’s heart, the vast Columbia itself is invisible beyond a screen of trees, Interstate 84, and an increasingly crowded set of railroad tracks. It’s surprisingly quiet here on a sweltering Sunday in June. Though the population is just shy of 450, “town’s usually very busy,” resident Sandra Parksion tells me from a camp chair in the shade, where she sits beside her adult grandson, Adrian Stranz. “There are a lot of bicyclists. Hikers. Joggers. You name it. (Now) you don’t see anybody wandering around. You don’t hear kids hollering and playing.”

There’s also no wind this weekend, a notable absence in the Gorge, where the bluster often clocks in around 25 to 35 miles per hour. And that, some residents and local officials speculate, may be the only reason why Mosier’s still standing.

Around noon the previous Friday, part of a Union Pacific train carrying 96 tanker cars of highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed just below Mosier’s I-84 exit overpass, 16 cars folding together in a great clanking din. Four exploded into a blaze that shot flames up to 50 feet in the air and smeared the sky with greasy, black smoke that was visible for miles. More…

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Evidence of absence: Spotted owls are still vanishing from the Northwest

This feature appeared in the Spring, 2016 print edition of The Living Bird, the magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.IMG_8072.jpg

You won’t meet a Northern Spotted Owl in this story.

The first reason is that, by the time I drive west from Sutherlin, Oregon, with Janice Reid one sunny November morning, the raptor’s breeding season is over. Spotted Owls are territorial while they nest and can be summoned with a hoot simulating an intruder. But once their owlets are grown, the birds melt like ghosts into the forest.

The second reason is grimmer: Spotted Owls are becoming much harder to find.

Reid, a small woman with wavy silver hair, is the U.S. Forest Service’s project director on the 400 square-mile Tyee study area, one of 11 such study sites in western Washington, Oregon, and northern California involved in a decades-long effort to track Spotted Owl population trends.

“I essentially live in this truck in summer, so it’s still got dust and fir needles from field work,” she apologizes, explaining that the dog smell is from a Labrador retriever she’s trained to track owl pellets. She’s studied Spotted Owls in these mountains since 1985, lured by their docile personalities and the puzzle of locating them in the tangled woods.

“You can see your reflection in their eyes sometimes, you get so close,” she says. “And they have big brown eyes. Maybe it’s just human nature to like big brown eyes.” More…

Oregon’s Trail through Time: How do you protect a historic artifact from the development it catalyzed?

IMG_8067This feature appeared in the March 7, 2016 special travel issue of High Country News:

Ignore the cold that stiffens your fingers this blustery November day. Ignore the snow atop the distant mountains and the seed-flecked mud that weights your boots. Forget the Jeep Cherokee you came in. None of that was here, in eastern Oregon, in late summer when they crossed.

“You’ve gotta pretend,” says Gail Carbiener, “that it’s 100 degrees.”

I close my eyes. Beneath my feet are the ruts of the Oregon Trail, left by thousands of covered wagons that settlers used to haul belongings from Missouri to the valleys beyond the Cascades, back during the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. Even then, the route wasn’t new: Fur trappers and missionaries used it, and so, for millennia, did Native peoples.

Today, it’s the designated Oregon National Historic Trail, administered by the National Park Service and mostly visited by history enthusiasts like Carbiener and his wife, Muriel. This particular stretch, northwest of Ontario, Oregon, was a brutally dry 25 miles between the algae-choked Malheur River and a final crossing of the Snake River called Farewell Bend. I conjure creaking leather, plodding livestock, and sunburnt families on foot. It’s not easy: The ruts look more like an eroded ditch grown over with sagebrush. I can faintly hear traffic on Interstate 84, out of sight beyond a hill that fails to conceal a cellphone tower.

The visual intrusion makes 81-year-old Carbiener scowl beneath his John Deere ball cap, but otherwise, the white-grassed hills appear mostly unchanged since the 19th century. That’s why the Carbieners so love this spot, called Birch Creek. Those early travelers “would talk about coming up to a ridge, and as far as the eye could see, they saw wagons,” Gail Carbiener continues. “And so the dust here was unbelievable. The diaries would say that it was so thick, we can’t see the oxen in front of the wagon.”

To complete the scene, I glance at Muriel Carbiener. She performs living history at the High Desert Museum in Bend, where the couple lives, and today, she’s in character. A bonnet covers her close-cropped hair and a floral-print dress hangs to her ankles, cinched with a slightly tattered apron. “And of course there’s a corset,” the diminutive 79-year-old laughs, to “keep the girls in. Do you want to walk 2,000 miles without any support?” More…

What a dead blue whale can teach us about the ocean — and ourselves

This article appeared on Smithsonianmag.com Nov. 18, 2015:

Standing on the blustery beach, Bruce Mate wears a camo slicker, green bibs, a tidy white beard and a somber expression. While Mate’s getup suggests a typical day in the field for a marine mammalogist, the box of latex gloves and bottle of chainsaw lubricating oil under his arm hint at this morning’s unusual task.

The behemoth corpse stranded here the previous Monday, November 2. As far as Mate knows, it’s the first recorded case of a blue whale washing up on the Oregon coast. The creatures are rare; perhaps 2,500 ply the eastern north Pacific, making up between 10 and 25 percent of the global population.

Because blue whales range over vast distances, they tend to sink far from shore when they die, seeding and sustaining a diverse ecosystem of creatures on the seafloor. For a carcass to drift within reach of human experts is the scientific equivalent of that bonanza, known as whale fall. A day after the stranding, Mate, who directs OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute in Newport, and OSU stranding coordinator Jim Rice were on scene with a mission: Extract the giant skeleton for public display. More…

Claustrophilia: Do wide-open lands bring us closer together?

Cover essay and photographs from the September 15, 2015 High Country News Books and Essays issue:

I can see a spark of tired panic in Jo’s eyes as they meet mine. Our narrow Purgon — a Russian-made UAZ van that resembles a jacked-up VW bus — is bursting with people. The rigid seats, which face each other like those in a diner booth, are crammed with butts, and our knees interlock like a human zipper. In the back, where baggage and boxes of supplies serve as yet more seats, two weathered old men hunch below the ceiling. In the front passenger seat, a woman settles on the lap of the standby driver.

Dhuka reindeerAnd yet here we are, picking up another passenger. She looks like she weighs maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, but where will she fit? There’s a slim gap between Jo and her neighbor; the newcomer clambers over and wedges in sideways. Finally, finally, after six hours of waiting, the driver decides that we’re full. He grinds into gear and we chug free of Murun, Mongolia — capital of the country’s northernmost province — toward the remote village of Tsagaan Nuur, near the Russian border.

After 30 minutes of paved road, we veer abruptly onto a dirt two-track winding into the hills. Jo’s husband, Sean, who finished a Peace Corps assignment here in 2007, grins knowingly at Jo and me. “Jiiinkheeene,” he comments wryly, drawing out the Mongolian word. Jinkhene translates roughly as authentic, or old-school. But it can best be defined by what follows.

The Purgon bounces and shudders: The passengers brace arms against seats and each other’s knees, occasionally knocking heads. The Purgon grows steadily chillier: The passengers produce a laptop and memory stick and put together a compilation of Mongolian power ballads that the driver plays on repeat for the next 12 hours. The Purgon bogs in the mud: The passengers tumble out and push, sprinting in all directions when it lurches free at high speed. Through it all, everyone smiles, everyone laughs. There’s something almost tender about the ease with which strangers drowse on each others’ shoulders through the night. Shepherd slumps against meaty policeman; meaty policeman slumps against Sean; Sean, wincing, flattens his 6-foot-4-inch frame against the Purgon wall and my feet, which I had propped up to keep my knees from cramping.

The Mongolians are better at this than us.

In my early 20s, I was in a similar situation on a Greyhound bus between Kansas City and Denver. When the sleeping teenage girl next to me began drooling on my shoulder, I felt not tenderness but silent, half-homicidal rage.

Now, though, watching these strangers touch each other as casually as friends, I feel differently. Beyond the smeared windows stretches one of the most sparsely populated landscapes in the world. There are no fences, and little interrupts the gentle roll of the steppe besides patches of dark trees and congregations of plump sheep, yaks and horses. Felt roundhouses called gers — the traditional homes of pastoral nomads — appear now and then like white buttons stitched haphazardly onto rumpled green fabric. Sean has told us about the nomads’ generosity, how they will offer even unexpected visitors salted yak-milk tea, food, a bed. And I’ve read of the blizzards and subzero cold that pummel people here each winter. Maybe, I think, in all this beautiful, brutal vastness, a tiny enclosure that brings the world to a human scale is to be shared, not defended. How else would anyone survive in such a place? More…

Bird v. bird: The complicated relationship between sage grouse and their avian predators

This feature appears on p.17-19 of the summer, 2015 issue of Western Confluence magazine:

Rancher Truman Julian says he has “a place in his heart” for greater sage grouse. A former wildlife biologist who still works land his family homesteaded near Kemmerer, Wyoming, around the turn of the 19th century, Julian has piped spring water to troughs at the dry edges of his private ground that he says benefit both sage grouse and livestock, and has installed special ramped screens the birds can climb to escape drowning
should they fall in.

Sage grouse, best known for males’ elaborate chest sac-puffing mating displays, need all the help they can get. Though the species persists in 11 western states and two Canadian provinces, it occupies
less than half its historic range; its numbers have fallen from historic estimates in the millions to as few as 200,000 today. Environmentalists, ranchers, government officials, sportsmen, scientists, and others have been rushing to bolster sage grouse populations in advance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision this fall about whether the bird deserves special protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Because sage grouse declines stem from habitat fragmentation and loss, much of the recovery work has focused on protecting and restoring what’s left. But Julian wondered about another variable. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve built up a lot of ravens,” he says—whole fields black with them. “They raid everything. They kill our lambs. We had a rancher that lost five calves when ravens pecked into their hind-leg joints.” Local producers were increasingly calling on Wildlife Services—a federal agency tasked with managing human-wildlife conflicts—to poison ravens at calving and lambing time. Since ravens also gobble sage grouse eggs, Julian thought, why not ask researchers to look into whether the agency’s effort to protect livestock boosted local sage grouse as a side effect?

Jonathan Dinkins ended up with the project as a Utah State University PhD student in 2008. It’s normal for sage grouse to get eaten, says Dinkins, now a post-doc at University of Wyoming: they’re the natural prey of many different species, including ravens. But a raven boom could be contributing to a grouse bust. So in part, he would try to determine whether killing ravens actually helped more sage grouse nests succeed—that is, let more eggs hatch into chicks. It was a good opportunity, he says, “to look at management as it would occur.”

He also wanted to investigate whether avian predators in general—ravens and magpies as well as raptors that kill adult grouse—had broader impacts by affecting sage grouse behavior. Could they change how the birds used the landscape? Even make otherwise choice nesting and brooding habitat unusable by scaring sage grouse away?

In other words, could the mere threat of predation be eating away more of the habitat the already struggling grouse so desperately needed? More…

Searching for the sacrifice zone: Where can we say yes to oil and gas development?

This feature originally appeared in the Jan. 19 print edition of High Country News:

Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.
Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.

Kaye Fissinger collects Don Quixote.

I met the diminutive 70-year-old at her home in a quiet subdivision of Longmont, Colorado. Amid memorabilia from her work in musical theater, black-and-white portraits and an eye-popping snapshot of her body-builder daughter, the man of La Mancha stared from prints and paintings, posed in wooden statuettes and porcelain figurines.

“Why Quixote?” I asked.

She regarded me over gold-rimmed glasses, a smile quirking her mouth. “Because he tilts at windmills,” she said.

In a way, so does Fissinger, but hers are the oil-drilling rigs that have popped up lately in her area. She looked computer-tired, clad in a white turtleneck, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She led me upstairs to a cluttered home office, cleared a stack of documents from a chair and urged me to sit. When she came here from L.A. in 2006, she explained, she was worried about the separation of church and state.

She didn’t yet realize that the plains further to the northeast were pin-cushioned with tens of thousands of wells, many of them hydraulically fractured, or fracked — a process that involves firing water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground at incomprehensible pressures — or that the boom had intensified in recent years.

Then one day in 2011, an automated phone survey asked her an odd question: How would she feel if drilling took place on Longmont open space? “Radar, radar!” she exclaimed. A company, it turned out, had proposed drilling around a local reservoir. The more she learned, the more she worried. She thought of her great-grandkids. A lung cancer survivor, she thought of her respiratory health. She thought about the flat lot near her house that might be a perfect place for a rig.

And in 2012, she helped found the nonprofit Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, which spearheaded a ballot initiative that made the city the first in Colorado to ban fracking. The next fall, despite industry’s expensive counter-campaign, several other Front Range communities followed suit. Places across the West and the country have also joined in, from rural Mora County, New Mexico, in 2013, to, most recently and significantly, the state of New York, which overlays a booming shale gas formation.

Though many bans face long odds in court — Longmont’s and others have already been shot down and are headed for appeals — activists and local officials keep fighting. “We’re in it for the long haul,” Fissinger told me emphatically. “Fracking is a toxic, extreme energy extraction method. I don’t think it can be made safe.”

The prospect of a drill rig towering over one’s home would terrify just about anyone, me included. But I still felt conflicted: A near-term transition from oil and gas is profoundly unlikely. Natural gas is slowly supplanting coal as a primary electricity-generating fuel. Petroleum runs our planes, trains and automobiles. Both make it into a dizzying array of plastics and personal care products.

The corporate machine of hydrocarbon development contains a ghost. And the ghost in that machine is us. Until that changes, every fracking ban — Longmont’s, Mora County’s, New York’s — no matter how heroic and justified, simply pushes drilling somewhere else. I wanted to know: Where are we saying yes to such development, and how can we say it in a way 0that lessens impacts on landscapes and people?

I had one hunch. To see if it bore out, I rented a red Chevy Cruze, filled the tank, and got behind the wheel. “Remaining Oil Life: 97%” blinked on the dash. How appropriate, I thought, and drove west, toward Energy Country. More…(subscription required.)